Schools react to state budget cuts

Published 11:59 pm Thursday, October 1, 2009

Local school administrators said the Gov. Bob Riley’s announcement of 7.5 percent proration in this year’s fiscal education budget was “not surprising,” but still leaves them wondering how to best handle the reduction in funds.

School officials statewide have been anticipating the announcement, ever since shortfalls in tax revenue first prompted the governor to cut the education budget last year. This year’s fiscal budget, which began yesterday, is $5.3 billion. Education spending by the state was $4.2 billion in 2003 and reached a record high of $6.7 billion in 2008.

During the summer months, Riley released the final $116 million from the State’s Rainy Day Trust Fund, depleting any additional reserves that could be used to fund education.

“It’s not a surprise,” said Andalusia City Schools superintendent Beverly McAnulty of Riley’s announcement. “But we can’t handle any more cuts. We’ve managed to minimize the impact at the classroom level, but that’s coming with this latest news.”

In July, ACS was already dipping into its reserves, as were Opp and the county school systems.

During this year’s budgeting process, CCS superintendent Terry Holley said the system made preparations for the reductions.

“We were anticipating 6 percent,” Holley said. “Later on, the projection went to 8 (percent). Now, we’re at 1.5 percent over what we budgeted for. We’re just going to have to make adjustments with the overall program. We’d love to have 0 percent, but 7.5 (percent) is better than 8 (percent).”

In Opp, Superintendent Michael Smithart said the 7.5 percent figure equals a $542,000 reduction.

“This is especially devastating because there is no ‘Rainy Day’ fund,” he said. “We can absorb some of this with funds we have on hand, but back to back years of proration have taken their toll.”

At the college level, Lurleen B. Wallace Community College President Dr. Herbert Riedel said the reduction means a cut of $581,000, which will require “dipping further into the reserves” but it will not mean layoffs or cutbacks in programs.

“At this point, we may have to make some cuts, but we’ve really taken all the slack out the budget since 75 percent of it is salaries and benefits,” Riedel said. “We’re really struggling financially, but we’re going to work with what we have and serve the needs of our students.”

Riedel said in light of the cuts, he’s not sure how much longer it could be before students see a raise in tuition and fees.

“That’s the one thing we’ve not done in five years,” he said. “I don’t know how long we can hold off on that. We want to preserve accessibility for students and offer the programs that are expected.”

Riedel and other local education officials said the biggest worry facing them now is not the current level of proration, it’s next fiscal year when federal stimulus funding is gone.